The Miyakejima Hozonkai at Earth Celebration

Part of Friday evening's concert, and Saturday morning’s fringe festival was the Miyake-Jima Hozonkai. If you have ever seen a Kodo performance, live, or on video, it is likely you have seen this piece performed. It is one of Kodo’s old standby numbers, like the Odaiko solo, and Yataibayashi. I believe that Kodo’s continuing performance of this piece has perhaps been a large reason for the widespread popularity of this piece in the taiko world. If you search for Miyake Taiko on Youtube, you will probably find several videos of the song, all performed by different groups.

Although Kodo has helped make this song one of Taiko’s most recognizable, they did not compose it themselves. Miyake Taiko is one of many traditional taiko pieces “kept” and performed by a hozonkai. A hozonkai is a type of cultural preservation group. They seem to be usually dedicated only to a very specific part of culture. For example, the Miyake-Jima hozonkai dedicates itself to the performance and preservation of this single piece of music, which is actually only a few measures of music repeated over and over again. There is also a vocal part which is inserted into the drumming from time to time, but this is also merely a few lines of music.

Perhaps, dear reader, you know the song, “Dueling Banjos”. Imagine a group of people who simply focused on the learning, teaching and performing of this song. If you wanted to learn to play “Dueling Banjos”, you would join this group. The group is dedicated to preserving the folk art of this one piece. From my understanding, this is what a hozonkai does. We have actually joined a hozonkai here, for the song, “Shin Matto Bayashi”. I will write more about that very soon, I hope.

We were able to see the Miyake Hozonkai twice at the Earth Festival. Once during the Friday evening concert with Kodo, and then again, at the Fringe Festival at Kisaki Shrine the next morning. Although the performance at the concert was impressive and enjoyable to watch, the Fringe performance was less restricted, involved more members of the group and lasted nearly 45 minutes. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy the concert, but regarding the Miyake Hozonkai performance, we got a much bigger taste of it the following morning.

I am not good at estimating numbers of people, but I would guess the hozonkai probably had about 50 members with them that morning. They set up one drum on stage, and three more drums on the ground in front of the stage. If you have seen Miyake performed, you know the stance used is very low to the ground and is one of taiko’s most physically demanding positions. Those of you who knew this already may have been surprised when I said they played for nearly 45 minutes. Obviously, with 50 members and only 4 drums, they were not all playing at the same time. Each drum has two people; one is playing the base rhythm (kind of like swing eighth notes - doo ba doo ba doo ba doo) and the other is playing the “melody”. I would say that they switched out players every minute to two minutes. In spite of the short playing time, it was still quite strenuous.

After seeing both Kodo’s performance and the hozonkai’s, I noticed some differences in the music and performance styles.

1. The placement of the drums. Kodo, and most groups that perform this piece, place the drums on a horizontal stand, which is close to the ground. The hozonkai placed all their drums except two directly on the ground. This makes the drum lower to the ground and forces the performer to take on an even lower, more physically demanding stance when playing.

2. Kodo will usually play this song with about 5 drums set up in a V shape. The two performers at the front/center both face the audience, forcing them to mirror each other’s movements. So when one player is hitting the drum with the left hand, the other player is hitting with the right hand. (We tried practicing like this on Sunday, and it takes some getting used to.) The hozonkai did not mirror the person on the other side of the drum. On each drum, one person was facing the audience, and the other had his/her back to the audience.

3. The stance of the person playing the jiuchi (base) rhythm was different. The Kodo players will usually play the jiuchi part with one knee on the ground, while the hozonkai remained on both feet, with their legs spread apart and bent about 90 degrees at the knees. I think they both have advantages/disadvantages. While it is easier for the hozonkai to transition back and forth between the jiuchi and the melody, it seems to be very strenuous for the legs to hold that position for so long. Whereas Kodo’s style of kneeling gives the legs a brief rest, it is more difficult to jump back into the playing stance for the melody and it takes a lot of practice to do it smoothly. It is impressive, though, to see how cleanly they can transition.

4. The hozonkai only played a rhythm of a few measures over and over, whereas Kodo seems to have added different sections in between this “chorus”. They often appear to be improvisations, but I have been told that improvisation is not really a part of taiko playing. Just about every note and movement during a song is planned out.

5. There was also some slight variation in the position of the sticks as they played, but I will not bother to explain that here because it is probably too difficult to illustrate without having a visual aid.

With all their differences, the two playing styles of this piece which we saw were both extremely enjoyable to observe. My wife and I have performed a version of this piece on a few occasions, and we hope to continue to perform it, but after seeing the performances at the Earth Celebration, we could see many areas in which we need to improve. We will continue to work hard and hopefully reach an acceptable level for performance.

Please enjoy this video of the Fringe Festival performance.

No comments: